Winter Break: What I read (and listened to!)

Time moves differently during winter break. My body adjusts to later bedtimes and lazier mornings. I graze throughout the day instead of having set meals, and my peak hours coincide with the stingy Minnesota sunlight that filters through the cold air. I was lucky to spend many hours reading, looking at art, listening to podcasts, and dabbling in other hobbies. Here are some of my discoveries and recommendations from the break:


Via Grove Atlantic, Inc.

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

When I mentioned this novel to a family friend, he immediately shook his head, saying he wouldn’t want to read a book about the death of a child. I won’t lie—“History of Wolves” is rife with disturbing subject matter, including implications of child abuse. For those who can stomach it, however, I highly recommend this novel. In fact, it was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Fridlund’s sensitivity, poetic language, and psychological perception craft a work of art in which violence is not shock value, but rather the consequence of devastating power imbalances, leading to the wreckage of human relationships and ecological harmony. Linda, the teenage protagonist, is obsessed with wolves because they are both predator and prey, driven to endangerment by humans as punishment for killing livestock. Linda identifies with the wolves’ tenuous position. “History of Wolves” destroys the equation of girlhood and innocence, or of girlhood and passivity.

Confused and lonely Linda is tormented by her alternately loving and destructive impulses. She watches a kitten claw at the door of his house without making a move to let him in, but then she gently rescues him when she finds him weeks later, skinny and terrified in the woods. When Linda takes her four-year-old neighbor Paul to see newborn ducklings, she secretly wishes that Paul would try to harm them so that Linda act as their protector. She reveres the Minnesota wilderness that is her home, and at the same time cannot help but delight in her capacity to destroy it. Sitting behind her father on his ATV, “we rumbled along the overgrown trail destroying everything we touched—smashing ferns and goldenrod and baby white pine and sumac fronds—and it was wretched, and it was so delicious too.”

Fridlund reveals in the first pages that Paul will die, and the rest of the book explores how and why. I was a little disappointed by how quickly I figured out the mystery—the epigraph more or less gave it away. The energy of this novel, however, lies less in specifics of the plot, and more in Linda’s brutal tenderness as she observes the complexity of those around her, especially their unintentionally revealed weaknesses. When an outcast girl at school confides a secret to her, Linda knows that “she’d spoken without any sense of occasion at all. It occurred to me that she’d only told me because I had no one to tell. It was like dropping a secret in a snowbank.” She notes of Paul’s father, “He was a man who couldn’t be without slippers, which made me sad and maybe a little repulsed by him.” Paul’s mother, Petra, is an adult who acts more like a scared child; and Paul himself is a surprisingly complicated character for a toddler, in whom Linda chronicles a vast array of moods and private interiority.

The nonlinear narrative revolves around certain key events: the summer Linda spends with Paul, a putative encounter between one of Linda’s teachers and an underage student, the trial following Paul’s death, and Linda’s rootless adult life. Every time Fridlund revisits these episodes, she uncovers new details. The fragmented narrative spins around like a penny in a coin vortex, gliding in tinier and tinier circles until it arrives at a cluster of central truths about Linda, the power that she craves, and its ruinous cost.

Via Picador, Macmillan Publishers

“They May Not Mean To, But They Do,” by Cathleen Schine

Schine delves into tragedy a sharp sense of humor. She points out the absurdity of the most tragic situations, but never cheapening the experiences of grief and aging. When I picked up this novel directly after reading “History of Wolves,” Schine’s characters at first seemed flat, even stereotypical, but I soon adjusted to the difference in tone. “They May Not Mean To, But They Do” follows the Goldberg clan: We have the overworked mother, the anxious type-A daughter, the distracted lawyer son, and the doting but careless father who now suffers from several serious diseases including Alzheimer’s. The novel jumps, sometimes erratically, between the various family members’ perspectives, as their poetry-loving father, Aaron, weakens and eventually passes away (not a spoiler! Or rather, it’s a spoiler that is given away on the book jacket, a practice of which I personally disapprove, but who I am to argue with the marketing team at Farrar, Straus & Giroux?). Joy, the matriarch, hides her mourning and loneliness as also trying to “be a good sport” for her needy children.

The writing is clever, but at times feels glib. All of the Bergmans are hyper-articulate and when they get together, their rapid-fire multi-threaded conversations ricochet off the walls of the cramped apartment. They speak over each other, suddenly respond to abandoned conversational threads, and revel in the joy of a well-place pun. Their voices are authentic, but at times, exhausting, especially those of the younger characters, who tend toward punchy cleverness. To be fair, I laughed out loud throughout the novel. Schine has a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek sense of humor: “The room that had once been Molly’s was now her mother’s office and her father’s study. Those were the terms used by them both, and if an office is a place where you store cardboard boxes of unopened mail and a study is where you sit between spires of those boxes on a convertible sofa and listen to your transistor radio, then those terms were accurate.” At other points, this writing style feels forced and unnecessary: “Aaron was prescribed various painkillers that teenagers in shrinking Midwestern towns abused.”

Behind Schine’s wit is an honest and brave look at the challenges of being an aging parent and an aging child. With terrible mater-of-factness, she spares no details in describing Aaron’s deteriorating health and overall loss of dignity and autonomy. Joy’s adjustment to widowhood is the main problem of the novel’s second half. Her children are well-meaning but often selfish, and Joy fears becoming a burden to them. Schine has a remarkable sense of empathy for each generation, and as a younger reader I appreciated her insights into future stages of life. The only weak point of the plot is an odd detour into one of the granddaughter’s unexpected and sudden obsession with Judaism, which could potentially have been explored fully and integrated into the rest of the novel, but was instead irrelevant and a bit jarring.


My mother, who works at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, brought home a jigsaw puzzle from the museum gift shop one day. The picture on the box was Manet’s “The Grand Canal of Venice,” but the pieces proved to be an infuriating kaleidoscope of blues and grays. I was instantly obsessed, and spent almost every subsequent night working on the puzzle, at least for the duration of a podcast or two. My favorite is The New Yorker: The Writer’s Voice, which features authors reading their short stories, as published in the magazine each week. The podcast offers a mix of the childhood delight in hearing stories being read aloud, and the more literary pleasure of a work being read by the voice that wrote it.

Favorite episodes:

Yiyun Li Reads “A Flawless Silence” Like many of the stories that have been published in The New Yorker over the last few years, “A Flawless Silence” is a reflection of the Trump era, and the strange contortions of communities desperate to ignore the chasms that have split husband from wife, friend from friend. Min, the story’s protagonist, is unable to stand up to her belligerent husband, but his chauvinistic behavior inspires her to confront and resolve a trauma from her youth.

Keith Gessen Reads “How Did We Come to Know You?” An aimless American-raised man returns to his native Moscow to care for his grandmother. Gessen’s wry voice is perfect for detailing his protagonist’s misadventures. Despite the story’s humorous tone, living with the grandmother offers complications deeper than the old-world charm her grandson expected; the story opens up to reveal the struggles and yearnings of a family separated by prejudice and a broken political system.

Mary Gaitskill Reads “Acceptance Journey” In this creative and heartbreaking story, a woman is alone after a bitter break-up and reaches out to a young family across the street. She writes letters to her neighbor’s daughter in the handwriting of the Grinch, hoping to give the child the Christmas cheer that she herself is unable to muster. She writes that although the Grinch has been reformed, he still accidentally hurts those he loves. Gaitskill grapples with the negotiation between affection and clumsy self-protection, and invites the reader to do the same.

Special Mention:

Zadie Smith Reads “Now More Than Ever” I admit that I was initially resistant to this story, because I thought it was going to be a predictable attack on a strawman image of academic “call-out culture.” To the contrary, this was an odd and affecting story, treating a contentious issue with quiet nuance. I recommend a listen to any of Smith’s stories—if not this one, then perhaps the gorgeous “Crazy They Call Me”—because, more than any of the other authors I heard, Smith inhabits her characters fully, “doing the voices,” as I would have said as a child, jumping into accents and personae with ease.

Finals week

I’m writing this blog post on the semester’s final day of classes. Tonight is the quadrennial end-of-term Harry Potter dinner, held in the Great Hall (photos at the end of the post!). I’ve already taken my German listening and speaking exams, but before I fly home I have to taken the German written exam and also finish final papers for my Spanish senior seminar and Transatlantic Childhoods. I’ll probably be spending the next eight days curled up like a gremlin in my increasingly-messy room.Almost every finals periods that I’ve spent at Bryn Mawr, I have signed up to proctor self-schedule exams. As you might know, many professors allow students the opportunity to schedule their own exams—this means that you go to Guild Hall on the day and time that you choose, collect the test, and then go to a designated classroom to take it. The exams are proctored by student volunteers, which is an easy way for me to support Bryn Mawr’s culture of self-government and academic integrity. Student proctors just have to hand out the tests and then remain in the testing area during the exam period, so I’ve often been able to get quite a lot of my own work done during that time.

It’s been a busy and interesting semester, and I’m very ready for the break. I plan to work on my thesis and start applying for jobs, but mostly to just relax and enjoy being home.

Field trip with the German Department

With only two weeks until finals, the mood has been somewhat grim on campus. This past weekend I was glad to take a study break for the German Department’s field trip to Brauhaus Schmitz and the Christmas Village. Brauhaus Schmitz is a German restaurant near South Street. We were told that one can find very authentic German food here, and we were not disappointed. Seated at family-style wooden tables, we passed around platters of cheesy spätzle and various wursts. For us vegetarians, there were also potato pancakes with sour cream, chives, and applesauce. After lunch, we filed back onto the Blue Bus—which looked quite out of place in the city—and drove to Love Park, where we found the annual Christmas Village, an open-air German market full of twinkling lights and inviting stalls. A group of five of us waited patiently to be let into the closed-off tent belonging to Käthe Wohlfahrt, a German company that sells handcrafted ornamented, carvings, and other beautiful trinkets. Photography was not permitted inside the tent, but my favorite thing to look at was the shelves of nutcrackers in all different guises: saints, shepherds, soldiers, even a fisherman nutcracker holding a string of fish!

There are also plenty of food and drink vendors…although after our hearty lunch I wasn’t in the mood for refreshments. The field trip was a good way to spend my Saturday and a fun culmination of my first semester of German. Everyone was exhausted by the time the Blue Bus dropped us back off on campus. The next day I tried to catch up on studying, and then went to Bryn Mawr Hillel’s menorah lighting event for the first night of Channukah. Next week I will have to start thinking seriously about my final papers and exam, and many of my classmates have already begun their final preparations. Good luck to all who are studying, and I hope that everyone is able to find a bit of rest and peace in the weeks ahead!

Visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

My visits to Philadelphia are infrequent during the school year, and for most of my college career I barely explored the city at all. Spending last summer in the city gave me much more confidence in my navigational abilities, and it also turned Philadelphia from an intimidating mass of faceless buildings into something resembling a home. The Sunday before Thanksgiving break, I found myself with no urgent work to complete and no appointments to keep, so I decided to visit the city and spend a day recharging. As the train lumbered into the station I listened to two elderly women reminisce about how they used to go to the ballet on Friday nights. Autumn sunlight made the fibers of their felt hats look like halos. We filed out onto the platform at Suburban Station and I lost them in the crowd.

I emerged to find the Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market in Dilworth Park. There were stalls selling homemade soaps, candles, jewelry, and hand-stitched silk embroideries. I had a great time admiring all the crafts on display. There was also ice-skating and a carousel with colored lights and music. It was a beautiful day, hovering on the edge of winter, but not too cold. All the snow has melted, so hardly any puddle-hopping was required. Going into the city by myself makes me feel like a different person, some mysterious urbanite on a mission, especially now that I am familiar enough with center city to walk around without needing to consult any map. On this particular day I was heading to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. One block north of City Hall, PAFA is located in a stunning historic building—and you can’t miss the giant paintbrush out front. The museum has free admission on Sundays from now through March 31, as a part of the temporary exhibition of work by Rina Banerjee, a contemporary artist whose installations and sculptures deal with globalization, environmental degradation, and the relationship between East and West, among other themes.It was disheartening to hear a museum-goer mutter to his friend, while looking at one of Banerjee’s pieces, “Why is this in a museum of American art?” Banerjee, born in India and raised in England, has lived and worked in the United States since the early 1990s. Her dissonant, eclectic, and at times grotesque aesthetic may not be for everyone, but there can be no question that her body of work speaks to problems that are of utmost importance to Americans and their place in the world. The juxtaposition between Banerjee’s work and the permanent collection is certainly dramatic, and such contrast is a valuable counterpoint to the early colonial narratives that PAFA otherwise showcases.

Banerjee’s works are interspersed throughout the museum, alongside the permanent collection of American art. PAFA was founded in 1805 to “promote the cultivation of the Fine Arts in the United States of America.” The museum houses artwork that both creates and challenges a unified national identity, a focus embodied by three portraits of George Washington. An iconic Gilbert Stuart painting faces two portraits by Philadelphia painters Charles Wilson Peale and Rembrandt Peale (his son). Why has Stuart’s vision of Washington persevered as the definitive image of the founding father while the Peales’ have faded from our collective imagination? Stuart’s portrait depicts Washington as an older man. The brushstrokes are softer and more romanticized. Washington looks mature, standing by his books and writing tools. The Peales paint Washington with bolder, brasher, and defined lines. On the battlefield or steely-eyed behind the weight of classical tradition, Washington is more vital but perhaps less wise.

Walking through the galleries reminded me of an English class I took my sophomore year in which we read foundational texts of the American 19th century canon and discussed the mythography that they construct. Many early thinkers theorized the pre-European America as an Edenic and untouched place, where the indigenous people frolicked childlike in nature’s bounty. This view is represented in the dreamy pastoral landscapes that hang salon-style in several of PAFA’s galleries. They are beautiful, and stir up emotions of wanderlust and awe. The tiny human presences in the vast wilderness are little civilizing dots, just on the verge of taming the land.One very early painting shows a menagerie of exotic animals grouped in the foreground among jungle-like flora, while just in the very background we can see a trading party of Europeans offering cloth and written documents to a group of indigenous people, who have laid down their weapons. Another painting shows the fabled scene of William Penn signing a treaty with the Lenape people, an event now memorialized in Philadelphia’s Penn Treaty Park.On my way out I stopped by the temporary exhibit in the Richard C. von Hess Works on Paper Gallery. “‘Alter’ing American Art, a selection of work from PAFA’s Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women,” which will stay up through December 16, is both a thought-provoking complement to the permanent collection and an excellent self-contained show. The few small rooms contain an incredible breadth of style and emotion that proves, as if we needed evidence, that the full range of the human personality is also found within women. Sadness, joy, community, solitude, confusion, desire, nostalgia, humor, and subversion: women’s art is not necessarily more personal or domestic, but I do feel that the works in this exhibit were more pointed, less art-for-art’s-sake than the art upstairs. I thought, maybe if your voice has been repressed, then once you finally are able to take possession of it, you feel a more acute need to utilize it. I was especially fascinated by the tiny painting “Girl Searching,” by Gertrude Abercrombie, which reminded me of many insomniac nights walking back from the library; and “Untitled (Gray Cloth Face)” by Alicia Henry, a piece of textile art that suggests a deep and silent grief.

“Girl Searching” Gertrude Abercrombie 1945

“Untitled (Grey Cloth Face)” Alicia Henry n.d.

It struck me that all of the pieces of art were small in size, relative to the vast canvases that I’d seen upstairs. Women have long been denied the time and space to create, perhaps painting at night, using leftover materials, or waiting until later in life to start their careers. Their art is often relegated to “craft” or “handiwork.” Nonetheless, without access to the same materials or training as their male counterparts, women artists refuse to be silenced, expressing themselves with dazzling intensity and passion. I absolutely loved this exhibit and highly recommend a trip.

“Cotton Pickers” Clementine Hunter n.d.

“Black Sheep of the Family” Andrea Joyce Heimer 2014

After leaving the museum, I walked to the Rittenhouse area, where I spent about an hour wandering and window shopping. I enjoyed browsing in the brand new “Shakespeare and Co.,” an offshoot of the New York City bookstore, and eavesdropping on the booksellers’ lively debate about the new “Fantastic Beasts” movie. After stopping in a few other stores and strolling past Rittenhouse square—and running into a recent Bryn Mawr alum—it was time to make my way back to Suburban Station and catch a train back to Bryn Mawr.

Spending time in Philadelphia is a great opportunity and resource for Bryn Mawr students, but unfortunately the city often seems inaccessible, especially to younger students. Not only because of a lack of time, but also, frankly, our public transportation system is confusing! I encourage first-year (and older!) students to step outside their comfort zones and explore Philadelphia sooner than I did. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy many of the hidden gems our city has to offer. If anyone has recommendations of interesting places to explore, or would like to hear about more of my favorite Philadelphia spots, please leave me a comment!

Thesis preparation on a snowy day

Hello! I’ve been neglecting my blog lately because of the immense amount of academic work that has been taking precedence in my life. Looking back at my planner from the last couple of months, my days don’t seem all that full, but of course I don’t write down all the hours I spend working on projects, reading, and studying. Tomorrow I must turn in my proposal for my senior English thesis. The proposal is the result of a semester’s worth of work. The entire English department faculty will review it, and then decide if it is approved, or if it needs more editing. Then I will be assigned my thesis advisor and we will make a plan for winter break and next semester.

Each Bryn Mawr department handles the senior final project differently. For some, like English, each student is required to write a formal and rigorous thesis, planning the project in the autumn Senior Seminar and then turning in a 30-to-40-page paper in the spring. For other departments, like Spanish, completing the optional thesis gives one the option to receive honors at graduation. Some departments offer seniors the option to complete final projects in other formats. For example, students studying Dance will craft a thesis performance, while History majors have the option to produce a final project in a medium such as an exhibit or a short film.

The view from my carrel this evening

For the English Senior Seminar, we met once a week throughout the semester, each week concentrating on a different topic and turning in assignments that were meant to help us think about different aspects of our projects. For example, one week we researched what other critics have said about our texts and then wrote a short paper summarizing that critical conversation. Later on in the semester we generated lists of “meta-questions” which were meant to help us define our methodology. In other words, through what lens am I viewing my text, and what critical theories would be useful?

This may seem a bit esoteric, or maybe just not interesting to people who don’t study literature. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the work that goes into preparing for a thesis project. It’s been stressful and it’s been hard to juggle my English-major responsibilities—which I would like to give first priority—and all my other classes, which of course I still care about and are still assigning a hefty workload. I’ve been spending a lot of time at my Canaday carrel. I’ve really settled in—there are usually a couple of half-completed crossword puzzles waiting for me, and the haphazard books and papers make the space feel unfussy and comfortable. I even dressed it up a little with a postcard I got over fall break at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


Because I have so much to do, I have also been trying to be more intentional about taking time away from work. The day before the thesis proposal was due we had an unexpectedly heavy snowfall. The snow fell so hard you couldn’t see through it to the end of senior row. My friend and I walked down to the moon bench and marveled at how different everything looked. All we could heard was the zzhhhhhh of the snow filtering through the last stubborn autumn leaves. The denseness of the fog narrowed the limits of the knowable realm, hinted at a transformed world that hovers just beyond the edges of what we can see. I know that underneath the snow the campus is the same as ever, but … suspend your disbelief for a minute: let your child-self imagine someplace mysterious.

“How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink—But oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—”

– Through the Looking-Glass, by Louis Carroll

Tips for finding (and keeping) motivation

Lately I’ve been having a difficult time getting my work done. I have several important due dates coming up, yet I keep finding new ways to procrastinate. If you can relate, I’d like to share some of my strategies for sharpening my focus and beating lethargy.

  1. Know yourself

At this point in my academic career, I know that I need to take a break at least every hour. For instance, the other night I went to the library to do a Spanish assignment. I read and took notes on one chapter before losing focus and when I checked the time, it was exactly an hour later. I put the book away; I don’t force myself to work past my natural limits of concentration because I know that if I do, I’ll just keep getting distracted, and will actually be less productive.

Self-knowledge is also the key to choosing study techniques, a productive work environment, or accessories and materials that help you learn—there seems to be an ideal “study aesthetic” that people try to emulate, but you need to study in the way that is best for you.

  1. Distinguish between “To do” and “Must do”

My planner is always meticulously filled with all my homework, projects, classes, meetings, and other appointments. This semester I added a step to my organization routine. I still write down everything, but I also make a more curated “Must do” list every day. These are the tasks that absolutely must be done, even if I do nothing else that day. I’m a big believer in creating small, manageable goals, so I keep the Must Do list to four items or fewer. This stops me from wasting time on things that are less urgent, and reminds me to feel proud even of small accomplishments.

  1. Have a routine

Establishing a daily schedule is crucial, but it’s very difficult for me to maintain. I tend to decide on a day-to-day basis how to spend my time, and about halfway through this semester I switched up my entire routine. This is a problem, because if I don’t have a set time to complete tasks, I might not do them at all! Although I’ve been somewhat wishy-washy, I do have a general idea of how to divide my time. For example, I usually do school work in the mornings, because I have the most energy and concentration then. Just a few years ago, I never would have called myself a morning person, but through trial and error, I figured out what works best for me.

  1. Remember your “Why”

Here’s a video that inspired me last semester to start waking up early. It’s made by a creator named Rowena Tsai—I would recommend all her videos on productivity and mindfulness—who talks about how she started waking up at 4 a.m. every single day. Of course most of us don’t want to wake up at 4 a.m., but her approach is applicable to many different projects. Rowena points out that it’s no use trying to attain a goal if you don’t have a good reason for it (skip to 8:25 to hear her explanation).

All through elementary school, middle school, and high school, I was a high-achieving student, but I wasn’t doing it for myself. My personality was naturally rule-abiding, so I did the work I was assigned and went to the classes on my schedule. If I were to skip classes in high school, I knew I would get in trouble, but in college I could skip days of classes before anyone even realized. What I’m trying to say is that when I came to Bryn Mawr, I couldn’t rely on external pressure to do well, so I had to find an internal motivation.

I don’t want to write too much about the mental and emotional challenges of college—my fellow students already know how precarious it can seem, like one wrong move will lead to abject disaster. Or conversely, how onerous life can become, turning into a stream of meaningless assignments, that make you feel like your only purpose is to employ the rhetorical techniques and jargon that will produce a good grade. The question is, how to make meaning. How to make each day a little memorable. How to push yourself to think more deeply, to question more intensely, to feel your brain moving.

Maybe that’s my real motivation. When I procrastinate, my brain feels slow, and I feel like there’s a piece of gauze between my senses and the world. I’m not saying that doing homework gives my life purpose—far from it!—but rather, that avoidant behaviors like procrastination make me feel disconnected and disinterested. Being productive can mean doing homework, but it can also mean exercising my creative energies in any way that brings something of value into my life and into the world.

Visiting Special Collections: the Ellery Yale Wood Collection

On a recent Wednesday morning, I stopped by Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections to look at some materials from the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books. The Ellery Yale Wood Collection was donated to the college in 2016 and includes around 12,000 books, with materials spanning from the 18th to the 20th centuries. I was hoping that the collection would help me with a project for my Transatlantic Childhoods class, which is taught by Professor Chloe Flower, English department’s brand new specialist in children’s literature and culture. Working with such rare primary materials is a wonderful opportunity, but this was actually the first time I visited Special Collections outside of a class.

I looked at two texts, The Orphans of India: a Tale for Young People, and The History of Little Fanny, published in 1815 and 1810 respectively. Both of these little books have survived remarkably. Although brittle, the pages are intact (with the exception of 17 pages from the middle of The Orphans of India; sadly I’ll never know the full details of the fates of the orphans in question). Nonetheless, the materials are fragile enough that it’s best to look at them on foam supports, with weighted cords to hold them in place.

In class we’ve been reading and discussing a wide variety of American and British genres such as poetry, pedagogical texts, picture books, and novels. I became interested in the recurring theme of orphans. In modern children’s books, orphanhood is often romanticized: conveniently absent parents allow for greater independence and adventuring. By contrast, in texts from the 19th century, orphanhood seems to be held up as a threat. Children who are disobedient or ungrateful are punished with abandonment, a fear which is based in the historical reality of widespread child labor and cultural anxieties about delinquency.

The Orphans of India and Little Fanny share an instructive purpose; the characters who, through their own faults, become orphans, serve as examples to the reader. These books were written to teach children literacy, but they also work to maintain a social order, hinting that a disruption of the status quo would mean not just a breakdown of society, but of the most basic sources of childhood stability. In The Orphans of India, a girl named Ellen tells a petty lie that causes the deaths of her father, aunt and brother. In Little Fanny, Fanny’s mother tells her not to stray from home, and when Fanny disobeys, she ends up a homeless beggar. She is re-accepted by her mother once she learns to be “pious, modest, diligent, and mild.”

Handling original copies of historical books adds a richness and context to the texts. The History of Little Fanny, for example, came with paper dolls that correspond to the various phases of the narrative. Fanny has a new outfit for each scene, complete with little accessories like a feathered hat when she is a pampered rich girl, and a basket of eggs to carry in her lowered status as an errand girl. These pieces of material culture reinforce the text, and perhaps helped a very young child to internalize its message.

Read more about the Ellery Yale Wood Collection here:

October days

Happy October!

I took some photos walking back to my dorm after my morning class. It’s hard not to appreciate Bryn Mawr’s beauty in all seasons, but you can always take the time to look a little closer. Just this morning, I saw two things I never noticed before: a blue jay and the most fairytale-perfect toadstools. We are in the throes of a moody mid-autumn: thick mist in the mornings, tizzies of rain during the night. The rain has nurtured soft carpets of moss on the trees, and some of the leaves are starting to blush with the promise of their changing colors. I love it when the sky is bleached, and the buildings and trees, darkened with rain, stand out so starkly. It can be a bit melancholy, but in a pensive way. Weather like this gives me a feeling of solemnity, like the world is quieting down in preparation for something important.

The last week has been quite busy for me, and this past weekend I had to finish three essays, two in English and one in Spanish. I’ve also been keeping busy with quizzes and tests in German. Studying a brand new language has been a good change of pace from my other classes, but the barrage of new material can be overwhelming. As you can imagine, I’m very ready for Fall Break, which starts on Friday. I’ll be going home to Minneapolis for the first time since June, and I’m so excited. I know I’ll have to use some of my time off to catch up on reading for my classes, but I also hope to start some creative projects and spend time outdoors.

Studying children’s literature this semester has been making me nostalgic for some of the books I grew up with. Aren’t there some books that just fit perfectly with certain seasons? I think summer is for nonfiction so you can learn even when there are no classes, winter is for big sprawling novels to read alongside a mug of tea, and autumn is for cozy books: poetry and children’s stories.

“October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Raindrops the size of bullets thundered on the castle windows for days on end; the lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and Hagrid’s pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds.” –Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

(In case you needed more proof that English House is magical, look at these little umbrellas for elves that I found growing on the lawn outside.)


ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury

This fall, Bryn Mawr is exhibiting four of the five interactive art installations that make up ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury. Tania El Khoury is an artist who works in London and Beirut. She partnered with Bryn Mawr as a part of the 2018 Fringe Festival. In September, I was able to see two of El Khoury’s pieces, Camp Pause and Gardens Speak. I wanted to write a little bit about my experiences with these installations, but it’s been difficult to decide what I wanted to say.

Camp Pause is a video installation that can be viewed all semester in Canaday Library. It pieces together the narratives of four Palestinian residents of the Rashidieh Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Various storytelling threads come together in Camp Pause to create an unsettling but powerful impact. When you walk in, there are four screens facing each other, all playing simultaneously through headphones; while you can only concentrate on one story at a time, you are aware of the others going on at the same time. Some visual elements appear in more than one of the videos, hinting at common threads among residents of the camp. The ocean is a strong motif in all of the stories. It makes up one of the camp’s borders—the other being a military checkpoint—and therefore represents the refugees’ feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. At the same time, the videos’ subjects often feel drawn to the water, entranced by the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

It’s hard to draw a clear moral from Camp Pause. Pieces of the camp’s historical background are interspersed with the often gut-wrenching stories of the camp’s residents. The one that struck me the most followed a young girl, because of the normalcy with which she viewed her life in the camp. In fact, her biggest complaint about her community was the abundance of litter by the seaside. It made me wonder how the generation that is growing up in Rashidieh will come to understand their situation.

Gardens Speak was only open for a limited length of time at Bryn Mawr. The piece was inspired by people who were killed by the regime in Syria. Their families are forbidden from holding public funerals, so the martyrs are often buried in secret or private graves. Gardens Speak gathers these stories through interviews with survivors, and creates a really singular experience. Although it was entirely immersive installation, it was an experience for the senses of touch, smell, and hearing, rather than vision.  This seemed quite unique for any piece of art, and I felt a bit apprehensive as the small group of us were ushered into the Hepburn Teaching Theater.

The space was entirely black, with only dim lighting. We were asked to leave our shoes and electronic devices at the entrance, and then we put on plastic coats over our clothes. Then we were led to the room, where we saw what looked like a plot of earth. Simple headstones stuck out of the soil, and each of us took our places at a different “grave.” Our guide had instructed us to begin digging in the dirt by our headstone; the dirt under my hands felt moist and smelled strongly of real vegetation. Soon enough, I found a sort of inflated cushion, from which a voice emanated. To hear, each of us had to lie down with our ears pressed against the speaker. The dirt was very uncomfortable under my body. I soon learned that the voice I was hearing was telling the story of Abdul Wahid al-Dandashi, as if in his own words. He told a brutal story of being tortured in an army prison, learning that his brother had been killed, and even after that, choosing to return to Syria and fight.

When each of the graves had finished speaking, all of us were invited to write a letter addressed to the person whose story we had heard, responding to the experience in any way. We then buried our letters back under the soil, where they would later be collected and added to the exhibit. As you can imagine, this was a sobering experience, and I found it interesting, once I had retrieved my shoes and washed the dirt off my hands, to go downstairs to see all the letters from past exhibitions displayed. Many of the letters—maybe even most of them—expressed a loss for words. Like Camp Pause, it’s hard to find an easy symbolism or moral to Gardens Speak. One might feel anguish over the senseless loss of life, or sympathy for someone whose loved one was killed, but what is there to say? “I’m sorry” is inadequate and feels detached, even meaningless. At the same time, it seems patently untrue to claim you can feel the pain of something so removed from your own life. Some of the letters I read expressed hopelessness, thinking of how many people could sacrifice their lives for freedom, yet still that dream is unrealized. The reaction that I most appreciated reading, which came from only a few letters, was inspiration. Some people, after seeing Gardens Speak, felt energized to dedicate their lives to a great cause, or to live for something truly worthwhile.

Letters written to Syrian martyrs, displayed in Goodhart Theater



The Vitality of What Will Be

After a busy summer of working at a historic house, reading submissions for a Philadelphia literary journal, participating in Bryn Mawr’s summer beekeeping apprenticeship, and dog-sitting, I am back for my final year at Bryn Mawr. This was the first year I did not return home to Minneapolis for the summer, and I feel like I was launched into the school year without a chance to catch my breath. It’s already the fourth week of classes, and the semester is barreling forward at full speed. I am currently taking two senior seminars, one for my English major and one for my Spanish major; a class on British and American children’s literatures of the 19th century; and introductory German. I am still finding my routine, and carving out space to reflect and develop the non-academic parts of myself.


This year I am living in Rockefeller Hall, which was also where I lived my first year. Rock has a distinct personality; it is full of little eccentricities, like the lower-than-average doorknobs and that clean, bright “Rock smell” that no one can quite define, but always makes me nostalgic for freshman year. People unfamiliar with the building find it labyrinthine, with all its winding corridors. Just in these first few weeks, I have had to give directions several times to some confused soul looking for a friend’s room. One of my favorite parts of Rock are all of its public spaces, natural gathering places like the sun-filled nooks at the end of each hall. We also have—in my opinion—the best common room on campus, with alert owls on the bannister and a coven of armchairs. 

One Rock-specific tradition is the painted windows. Most rooms have a window set into the door, and each resident can choose to customize it with water-soluble paints. The tradition is that if a painting is five years old or more, the current resident is encouraged to leave it untouched as a legacy door. This year I got “the Central Perks room,” which has been a traditions door for longer than I’ve been at Bryn Mawr. Although it would be fun to leave my own mark, I am happy to leave this wonderful painting for future generations.

The other thing I am so excited for as a senior—something I have anticipated for three years!—is getting my own carrel in Canaday library. My desk is in the corner by a window, reasonably well tucked away. Canaday has the mostly-deserved reputation of being the site of sleep-deprived studying under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights, but when you have your own corner to come back to, it really seems different.

Can you guess what my thesis is about?

What could be cozier than having a little space for yourself, to be able to leave your books and pencils someplace that will always be waiting for you? Maybe I’m getting the nesting urge because it’s autumn now and it’s been raining. This is my favorite season. But if you dread the impending cold weather, I’ll leave you with some wisdom from Mary Oliver who reminds us, in Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness:

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.